Saturday, September 07, 2013

The Whales of August (1987)

To celebrate the 101st anniversary of the Gish sisters' (Lillian and Dorothy) screen debut, Movies Silently and The Motion Pictures are hosting a blogathon in their honor. This is my contribution to the event.  Go HERE for a list of the others who are participating.




Deep into their twilight years, screen legends Lillian Gish and Bette Davis joined forces in The Whales of August, a poignant film which explores how people cope with the aging process and the thought of approaching death.  Also starring Vincent Price, and featuring Ann Sothern and Harry Carey, Jr. in supporting roles, this 1987 film was adapted from the David Berry play of the same name.  It saw Miss Sothern receiving a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination.


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Widowed elderly sisters Libby Strong (Bette Davis) and Sarah Webber (Lillian Gish) have been spending their summers in a cottage on the coast of Maine all their lives.  As young girls, they, along with their friend Tisha (Ann Sothern), used to watch expectantly for the annual August arrival of the migrating whales.  Eventually, the whales no longer made an appearance, but that is not the only change the women have known.

                                                               
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Libby is blind . . . and bitter.  Somewhat estranged from her daughter, she is now dependent upon Sarah to take care of her.  Yet far from being grateful for Sarah’s love and care, Libby is crotchety, unhappy, and extremely negative.  She believes death is right at her door, even suggesting to Sarah that they are too old to consider new things, that their lives are over and the grim reaper will be along for them any day now.

Sarah, who lost her husband in the war, enjoys painting and gardening.  Kind and friendly, she has struck the fancy of Mr. Maranov (Vincent Price), a down on his luck Russian nobleman.  After inviting him to dine with her and Libby, Sarah spends some time primping and reminiscing about her late husband.

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A true gentleman, Mr. Maranov accepts Sarah's dinner invitation, even bringing along that morning's catch to share with the sisters. Libby is rude to him, though, saying there is no need for him in their house.  Although Sarah would be interested in seeing the kindly gentleman, with Libby’s negativity, it doesn’t seem likely that she will.  Sarah very much wants to go on with living for what time she has left, while Libby feels that her life is already over. Tisha suggests to Sarah that she make other arrangements for Libby and then move in with her.

Will Libby ever be able to enjoy the time she has left, thus enabling Sarah to do the same?  Or will Sarah be forced to make other arrangements for her sister so that she will be able to embrace the remaining years of her life?  These are the questions which play out in the balance of this touching drama.




The Whales of August is a lovely, sentimental, heart-tugging movie, made all the more so by the knowledge that it is, essentially, a goodbye song---and not just for Libby and Sarah.  This is the final film of both Miss Gish and Miss Sothern and the next to last of Miss Davis.  Vincent Price would make less than a half dozen more films after this one, so he is in the final stages of his career as well, and director Lindsay Anderson made no more feature films after this.  In a touching and beautiful way, The Whales of August gives us--and each of them---the chance to say goodbye.

     
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Hard to believe that Miss Gish is 93 years old here---she definitely aged beautifully and looks years younger than her age. Gracious, spry, and lovely, she gives a moving performance, ending her seven-and-a-half decade career on a beautiful, grace-filled note. By taking on this role "at the age of 93, Miss Gish became the oldest actress to have appeared in a starring role."[1]



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Bette Davis, two years away from her death here, is very clearly in poor health.  Earlier in the decade, she had battled cancer (which would ultimately return and be the cause of her death) and been afflicted with a series of strokes, resulting in partial paralysis of the left side of her face.  The effects of the paralysis are obvious. Still, though, she does her usual great job of bringing an unkind, largely unlikable character to life, and she plays blind very believably. Without all the bizarre makeup so prevalent in her late-career films, Bette looks less harsh---younger-looking even---than in some of her 1960's works.  Even here at the end of her career, she remains my #1 gal.

Putting these two screen legends together, of course, had the potential for contention and rivalry.  However, according to Bette Davis, Larger Than Life“Miss Gish proved far tougher and more impervious to Davis’s barbs than many lesser players by simply switching off her hearing aid whenever any nonsense occurred.”  [1] Touche for Lilllian!  That is definitely one way to tune out those who drive us crazy!


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Vincent Price, while not having a whole lot to do, is well-suited to this role.  Given that I have a predisposed negativity towards Mr. Price (the result of The House of Usher as a child), for me to see him in a positive light says a lot for the man’s acting skills.  I enjoyed his chivalrous character here.  Ann Sothern received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her work here, and while she doesn't have much to do, she's funny and sweet in her role.  

Besides Misses Gish and Davis, the other star of The Whales of August is the stunning scenery.  Who wouldn’t enjoy a trip to the coast of Maine after finishing this. Although the film is slow-moving and without any dramatic action scenes or special effects, the characters, the stars’ performances, the scenery, and the touching story are enough to make it quite charming. 

Out on DVD, The Whales of August ought to be fairly easy to track down.  Fans of any of these four wonderful stars will enjoy catching them in their final years.  I'm calling this a 4-star film---one definitely worth a watch.

Happy viewing!


[1]  Bette Davis, Larger Than Life, by Richard Schickel and George Perry, Running Press Book Publishers, 2009



22 comments:

  1. Great review of a really fine film. But what's this , a predisposed negativity to Mr. Price? Oh my,my... that will have to be amended. He's such an excellent actor. This was one of those films that I watched thinking I wouldn't like it, but ended up enjoying it, thanks to all the legendary actor's performances and the quiet but powerful screenplay. Not to mention Davis being a hoot when she barks at Gish!

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    1. My dear sisters, I must admit that I know it is sacrilege to have an aversion to Mr. Price. This film may have remedied that, because it was the first time I've heard his voice and NOT been taken back to my childhood bedroom, with its door to the attic in my closet.

      Mr. Price was the instigator to my lifelong battle with overwhelming fear, thanks to a drive-in movie viewing of "The House of Usher" when I was 8 years old. I'll be writing about that experience in October...as everyone gears up for scary movies, I'll be writing about why I don't watch them.

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  2. I was on the red carpet for the premier of that film. It was an unusual film, especially for the time it was shown. I loved it and it was wonderful seeing all the old luminaries who came out that evening on behalf of Miss Gish, Ann Sothern and Vincent Price. I sat next to Alan Hale, Jr. (Skipper) . His father worked with Gish in the Silents. I had fun!

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    1. What a way to take in a movie, Carol! Sounds like a fantastic evening.

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  3. Watching this film will be very emotive for me, but someday I'll do it. Your review is great and filled with cool informations. It's interesting that Lillian's character is taking care once again of a blind sister, which happens also in Orphans of the Storm, in 1921.
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)
    Kisses!

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    1. Yes, Le, it is an emotional film, and not only because the stars are in their twilight years. I think all of us who have aging parents can somewhat relate to it.

      I've been busy and am a couple days late for the blogathon, but I will be popping by to read your article. Thanks for visiting mine.

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  4. Thank you for this review. I somehow missed this one when it came out. I will look for it now based on your enthusiasm. Thank you for sharing.

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    1. Thank you for visiting, Joe. I, too, missed this film when it came out...though knowing my attitude of 1987, I'm quite sure, I wouldn't have been caught dead seeing a movie whose stars were all over 40! Ah, the folly of my youth!

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  5. THE WHALES OF AUGUST is a lovely film that few people have seen. Hopefully, your heartfelt review will send folks looking for it. The music score is by Alan Price, who was a member of the 1960s rock group The Animals. Price was a versatile composer; he also worked with director Lindsay Anderson on O LUCKY MAN! (another personal favorite).

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    1. The Animals? As in The House of the Rising Sun? I love that song. Mr. Price was indeed versatile to go from that kind of music to the score of this film.

      Very interesting to learn that, Rick. Thanks for the information.

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  6. Wow, sounds like a really beautiful movie. I LOVED the anecdote about Lillian turning off her hearing aid. Who said growing old didn't have certain advantages. Thanks for a marvelous contribution to the blogathon!

    Fritzi
    Movies Silently

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    1. And thank you, Fritzi, for hosting this blogathon. I'm late on visiting all the entries, but I loved being a part of such a great event.

      Yes, that is a cute anecdote, isn't it? I wonder how many times she had to turn the hearing aid off throughout the course of filming?

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  7. I've seen this movie several times and love it! The little house they live in, the beautiful scenery...all so lovely:) I had no idea Lillian Gish was in her 90's during that film! She certainly stayed beautiful!

    Great review Patti!

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    1. Wow, Victoria, you've seen this several times? This was my very first viewing...but it definitely won't be my last.

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  8. This is the film that introduced me to Lillian Gish - I watched during a particularly obsessive Bette Davies phase, and I'm ashamed to say I'd almost forgotten all about it. This lovely review has prompted me to dig out an old copy for a re-watch!

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    1. I love Bette Davis, but for whatever reason, this is one of her films I had never seen before. Not sure how it didn't cross my radar before now.

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  9. Ack! I have to see this right away!

    For some reason, I have resisted signing up with Netflix, but I think your review right here has pushed me over the edge - because I don't know where else I can view this? When I sign up, I'll tell them you sent me.

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    1. SS, I got this film through my local public library. They have a large collection of movies on DVD. Not sure how your public library is, but that is always worth a shot...it's free, and you get them for a week.

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  10. I've never seen this, but would love to see these two great actresses together - will look out for it! Enjoyed your review a lot, Patti.

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    1. Glad you enjoyed the review, Judy. Hope you like the film, when you get a chance to see it.

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  11. I'm so glad I found your blog...this is on my 'must see' list.

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    1. Thank you for stopping by, Janet. I'm glad you found me, too. I always love meeting new classic movie fans.

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There are many wonderful blogs out there in blogland---and so little time to read them all. Therefore, I am truly humbled that you took the time to not only stop by my little place in the blogosphere, but to share your thoughts as well. Thank you for visiting...and for commenting. I hope your visit here was enjoyable and that you will return again soon.